Apple, Google have teamed up to build system-level COVID-19 contact tracing, interoperable APIs for iOS, Android

The two tech giants' unprecedented partnership looks to engage as many users in disease tracing and prevention efforts as possible while tearing down the data silos of their respective smartphone platforms.
By Dave Muoio
02:19 pm
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Two of the biggest names in technology have formed an unprecedented partnership to introduce health data-sharing and COVID-19 contact-tracing technologies to the lion's share of the smartphone market.

In dual news releases published this afternoon, Apple and Google announced plans to launch APIs that will enable interoperability between iOS and Android products by way of official apps from public health authorities. The companies said these apps will be available for consumers to download from the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store starting in May.

In the longer term, the two companies have committed to building a Bluetooth-based contact-tracing functionality into their underlying operating systems. The companies said this strategy will be designed as an opt-in functionality, but would open the door for more participants and deeper data integration with health apps and governments' public health initiatives.

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"Privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance in this effort, and we look forward to building this functionality in consultation with interested stakeholders," the companies wrote in their announcements. "We will openly publish information about our work for others to analyze."

To this end, the companies have released a slew of draft documents regarding Bluetooth specifications, cryptography specifications and the framework API.

WHY IT MATTERS

Traditional contact tracing is a labor-intensive process where public health groups interview confirmed cases to identify any other individuals they might have infected. As COVID-19 sweeps across the world, many health authorities are straining to keep up with new cases – which opens the door for an automated, device-driven approach to the practice.

“In order for the U.S. to really contain this epidemic, we need to have a much more proactive approach that allows us to trace more widely contacts for confirmed cases," Dr. Louise Ivers, executive director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Global Health, recently said on the subject of Bluetooth-based contact-tracing technologies.

Bluetooth in particular has been highlighted as a more privacy-friendly approach to contact tracing than GPS data collection or other intrusive methods – although it can be said that the data privacy record of big tech is hardly flawless.

By baking these capabilities into the operating systems of the two biggest smartphone platforms, the companies have an opportunity to engage as many people as possible in such a program. However, not everyone has responded to the initiative with enthusiasm – former Federal Trade Commission Chief Technologist Ashkan Soltani, for instance, took to Twitter to discuss his concerns regarding digital contact tracing, which include the combination of potential false positives and system overreliance by policy makers.

Not to be lost in the announcement is the push toward greater health-data interoperability. Both the initial APIs and system-level features are being built to provide health organizations with a consistent stream of public health data, no matter the platform. The COVID-19 pandemic may be the catalyst, but it will be worth keeping an eye on whether or not these interoperability efforts bleed into each company's other health technology projects down the line.

THE LARGER TREND

The Bluetooth-based contact-tracing functionality is very similar to an app-based project underway at MIT, which combines pings from smartphones with a cloud-based server. The system allows users to periodically check if their device has been within range of a positive case's smartphone, while it maintains anonymity between all parties.

While Apple and Google's new collaboration is something of a first for the tech giants, it does follow individual efforts to address the spread and management of COVID-19.

Last week Google released an open online resource that aggregates anonymized location-tracking data from mobile devices to share large-scale mobility and behavior trends. Prior to this, its sister company Verily launched a website through which California residents could be referred to a nearby mobile COVID-19 testing site (although this project's initial launch fell short of the scale promised by President Donald Trump). Other efforts from Alphabet companies include the promotion of World Health Organization educational initiatives across its platforms, the removal of misinformation from its websites and services, donations and grants through its philanthropic arm, and the release of open-source research from its artificial intelligence subsidiary DeepMind.

Apple, meanwhile, has repeatedly positioned its platforms as informational resources for worried users. In late March, the company updated its Siri voice assistant to provide symptom-based guidance and telehealth-app download links. A few days after, it worked with the CDC, FEMA and the White House Coronavirus Task Force to release a COVID-19 website and corresponding app for disease screening and information dissemination.

ON THE RECORD

"All of us at Apple and Google believe there has never been a more important moment to work together to solve one of the world’s most pressing problems," the companies wrote. "Through close cooperation and collaboration with developers, governments and public health providers, we hope to harness the power of technology to help countries around the world slow the spread of COVID-19 and accelerate the return of everyday life."